March 2004

2004 03 31
[International law]

Well, I’m shocked. It turns out that the U.S. is not, as a matter of international law, supposed to detain people in Guantanamo, at least in the way it has so far. This, according to a U.N. committee on human rights.

I know, I know. Doesn’t the U.N. have bigger – or, um, more offending – fish to fry? And what credibility can it possibly claim when Syria gets a spot on human rights committees? And so on and on.

But there’s a serious point here. There are occasional calls to reform the U.N. and give its human rights claims more teeth – the sort of thing that would put Syria and other countries on the hot seat. I’m all for that. Let’s not fool ourselves, though. The U.S. would also be reluctant to see genuine reforms, since genuine reforms would make criticisms like the one I mentioned above all the more difficult to brush off. I think the Bush admin’s treatment of the ICC gives a decent idea of how it would treat any really fair and open reform of international measures to promote human rights. That’s a pity, because for all its failures, the U.S. really is crucial to the development of the kinds of norms and practices that would benefit everyone in the long run. That’s sort of why I harp on this so much.

Mulling this over yesterday reminded me of a book I read a while ago, Richard Falk’s The Great Terror War. Falk wrote the book after 9/11. It’s a serious attempt to think through some of the difficulties raised by 9/11 and especially the implied threat in 9/11 of something far worse to come. If I remember correctly, one of Falk’s main points is that the threat of “mega-terrorism,” as he calls it, justifies some modification to existing international law. The solution here is not to just break international law, but to attempt to craft some principled and suitably restricted modifications to it.

Well, the devil is in the details, of course. But the basic point seems fine to me. The virtue of Falk’s approach is that he balances a willingness to recognize the difficulty of fighting “mega-terrorism” (the phrase just didn’t catch on) against the obvious worry that many countries, including the U.S., would abuse their new powers in the name of fighting terror.

It is my sad duty to report that the U.S. has done pretty much the reverse of what Falk recommends. The administration’s official position is that it is following international law in Guantanamo (because the captives don’t qualify as legitimate prisoner’s of war). If you think about it, this implies – rather perversely and contrary to what the admin actually believes – that existing international law crafted years ago under entirely different circumstances is perfectly suited to handling fresh challenges involved in fighting an international group of loosely organized terrorist cells.

On the other hand, the administration’s unofficial position is that it hardly matters if the detentions are illegal. The administraton demonstrates this contempt for the law every time it brushes off fundamental challenges to the detentions – as if it weren’t obvious that the Geneva Convention requires that the detainees be brought before a tribunal, at the very least, to determine their status. (I’ve read conflicting reports about conditions at the camps. I’m not sure what to believe, but the point is that the conditions are irrelevant – or rather, the fundamental objection is not to the conditions of detention, but rather to their legal justification. Another thing to note is that it was the military brass that pushed the hardest for the Geneva Convention, and many of the better features of Guantanamo are probably due to its intervention.)

The result of all this sqeamishness about international law has been deeply unsatisfying. In a situation where the administration might have been able to seize the momentum to refashion crucial legal tools necessary for fighting a long struggle against terrorist groups like AQ, it chose at once to deny the need for these crucial tools while at the time unnecessarily undermining the legitimacy of its own behaviour.

This isn’t a problem without consequences, either. The finer points of international law can make a huge difference in how well the U.S. is able to coordinate its counterterrrorism activities with other countries. To take one modest example which most Americans will likely never have heard about, there was an enormous fuss in Canada when Canadian troops in Afghanistan handed over suspected AQ members directly to U.S. troops. Why, you ask? Because doing so made Canadian troops complicit in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention – a rather bigger deal up North than it is here. The Canadian government no doubt took heed of the heat it took over this, as, I’m sure, did other governments. If you think that doesn’t make a difference, think again.

Ah, lost opportunities and squandered good-will . . . We’re in the vicinity of the defining quality of the Bush administration.

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2004 03 29
[Iraq and sovereignty, again]

I’m still puzzling over something that I unfortunately don’t have time to explore now in any sort of detail. I think proponents of intervention in Iraq have been very sceptical that Iraq’s sovereignty could have counted for much before the war, given the character of the Ba’ath regime under Iraq. If recognizing sovereignty implies some sort of deference to the regime which claims it, then why not think that the depraved character of the regime makes any sort of deference, including recognition of sovereignty, out of question? Noticing this, the thinking goes, will help us to see why the U.S. had the right to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

Here’s a question I’ve asked before, but not seen discussed elsewhere let alone answered: How would we have felt if Iran had intervened in 2003 on a humanitarian pretext to depose Saddam Hussein?

I have to confess, as much as I dislike Saddam Hussein, and as much as I’m attracted to the idea that Iraq’s sovereignty couldn’t have counted for much under Saddam Hussein, I don’t think I would have been very happy about it. The fact is, I don’t trust Iran’s leaders. I wouldn’t have trusted their intentions, or had much faith in their ability to do much good in Iraq (beyond, of course, getting rid of Saddam Hussein).

If any pro-war types are reading this, I’m curious: Do you share my reaction? If you do, do you notice that your dislike for Saddam Huseein can survive undiminished even as you frown at the thought of a humanitarian intervention to depose him?

So this is something I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing discussed a bit. One moral you might draw from this is that some (popular) accounts of humantarian intervention move too quickly from the claim that Iraq’s sovereignty was compromised by the despicable character of the regime to the view that the U.S. therefore had the right to intervene. For even if a country’s sovereignty is as compromised as can be, we might still doubt that it’s a sort of “humanitarian sitting duck” – that just anyone has the right to intervene.

I’ve written about ths once before. But so what. I’m still mulling it over. And I haven’t seen anyone else ask the question in exactly this way. Any help appreciated.

That’s the homework for the day. Think about it and let me know.

Now I have to go mark an enormous stack of exams.

p.s. Spare me the outrage about comparing Iran and the U.S. I don’t mean they’re exactly alike in every respect. In some ways, Iran would have been a more appropriate intervener; in other ways, of course, a less appropriate one. Enumerating those differences, and reflecting on why they make the difference they do, is one of the points of the exercise.

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2004 03 26
[Looking back]

I’ve noticed in the past year that an increasing number of pundits, professional and amateur, are claiming to have supported the full-scale invasion of Baghdad back in 1991. For some the point is “better late than never” for others it’s “too late now, but don’t think me soft”. I might be wrong, but from where I sit the ranks of the “full deal, first time” crowd seems to swell as the particulars of the case recede into the mists of history and memory. If you’ll indulge me in a hackneyed comparison, this reminds me a bit of attendance at Woodstock, which underwent a curious inflation as the years went by. Of course, some people did want the full deal for Iraq back then, and I’m sure most people are being sincere, but many of these claims strike me as the pundit’s version of, “Man, I was there. I used the can right after Jimi.”

It’s worth sorting through the retrospective case for the whole deal to distinguish the plausible elements from the elements of sheer fantasy. I’ll bet you can guess already which I think predominates.

First the positives. Back in 1991 folks in the South of Iraq were generally much keener for the U.S. They hadn’t yet been stabbed in the back, slaughtered with impunity and then ground down over a decade of sanctions and neglect. Indeed, the entire country was still much keener on the U.S. in general, and in much better shape by almost every measure. Rebuilding would have been correspondingly that much easier. Remember also that the sanctions played an important role in the maintenance of Saddam’s power, since he was able to use the resulting corruption to enrich his clan and tighten belts everywhere else. Interestingly, the Kurds were less supportive of the U.S. than they are now, since their betrayal was in the not very distant past, and they had yet to benefit from the protective umbrella of air support that George the elder reluctantly bestowed upon them. But on balance, in this respect the U.S. had a lot more going for it back then than it does now.

If it had taken place in 1991 the full deal would also have come at a better time, as an immediate response to something unequivocally wrong, rather than as an ad hoc war tied to an unrelated threat. The U.S. had assembled an impressive coalition – savour the memory – and enjoyed quite a bit of support in the region, at least compared to now. The U.N. had given its stamp of approval. And don’t forget that back in the day the U.S. had a much larger military, so it would have had the boots on the ground to ensure immediate stability in the aftermath of a regime-toppling invasion.

Moreover, the full deal would have obviated the need for the crippling sanctions, the cat and mouse inspections game, the gradual corruption of the entire region as Saddam bought off the various players with oil and promises of more oil, and many other consequences that not even the mother of all battles could love.

Fine. But I think that many pundits are holding this rosy picture in their minds and then adding more of their favourite details without much regard for how the whole is supposed to hang together. For one thing, as the advocates of ad hoc coalitions are always reminding us, broad coalitions are fragile things built on compromises. The fact is that most regional support for the coalition – think especially of Saudi Arabia – was only built on the explicit promise and the honest expectation that George the elder would never try anything as crass as democracy-building in the Middle East (See Kuwait, post 1991 restoration). If George had marched on Baghdad, the coalition would have fallen apart, or at least undergone a dramatic thinning at exactly the time it needed allies in the region the most. (And yes, I’m implicitly conceding that this time around, it would have been very hard to get together a genuinely multilateral democracy-promoting invasion of Iraq.)

Recall also that the first time around the State Department, fearful of a leak which would undermine the coalition, basically refrained from any planning for a new regime in Baghdad. This time, the uber-hawks chucked out the wisdom accumulated over a decade of peacekeeping missions. But remember, in 1991 there was no planning, and no decade of intensive peacekeeping missions to look back on for lessons. I’m not suggesting that they would have been flying completely blind, just that inexperience can be functionally equivalent to the kind of the arrogance that turns its back on experience. The Greeks used to say that you should practice pottery on a small jar. Iraq was a jumbo-sized pottery project for people who hadn’t worked much with clay in a long time.

Rumsfeld’s post war plan of winging it might have been an error on a world-historical scale, but we should also bear in mind that the capture of Baghdad itself, and the toppling of the regime, was an extraordinarily impressive military feat. Those of us, present company included, who fretted about a bloody street-by-street fight through Baghdad were proven spectacularly wrong, thank goodness. But as far as I can tell, much of that strategy was developed in the light of fairly recent military experience and made possible by high-tech communication systems which weren’t available in 1991. The plan was also developed as a direct consequence of, and partly to provide evidence for, Rumsfeld’s idiosyncratic views about modern warfare. Why think that the toppling of Baghdad would have been as quick and easy in 1991? Well, as I suggested, I think daydreaming pundits are holding fixed the elements of the story they like and substituting better elements from imagination when it suits them. Isn’t punditry fun, kids?

Remember too that back in 1991 Saddam’s military was both larger and far better equipped than it was more than a decade later. The main part of the army might well have turned on Saddam and joined the U.S. – after all, much of the regular army mutinied after 1991 on a hint from George the elder. But the Republican Guard fought hard even in lousy conditions. If the Guard had been withdrawn into the city I shudder to think of how things might have turned out. It’s quite possible possible that you would then have had a brutal, drawn out siege played by Saddam for all it was worth on the world stage as Georgie’s coalition fell apart for once and for all.

But suppose that the coalition had been able to decapitate the regime quickly and easily, the coalition had held together, the Guard had capitulated, and a large standing coalition army had been able to hold the peace in the immediate aftermath. And forget the inconvenient fact that George the elder had zero interest in democracy promotion. What would the prospects for success have been in that case?

Well, obviously better than the picture I’ve painted so far. But still, I think, problematic. On the one hand, the whole country, and especially the South, would probably have been more amenable to compromise than it is now. Even so, it would not exactly have been smooth sailing. Possible complications include: strong tensions as the imperatives of demography clashed with Sunni Arab historical entitlements, lack of support in the region, the meddling of Iran, alarm in Turkey, insurgency from nationalists, and so on. In other words, many of the same things the U.S. faces now.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented the world with an extraordinarily thorny issue, and none of the options available to anyone were especially good. Some time I’ll try to write about the other options; just to give you a sneak preview, they all sucked for various reasons. But the pundits who fantasize about how great it would have been if the U.S. had just done it right the first time – well, as people who were “at Woodstock” will tell you, not every flashback is reliable.

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2004 03 22
The March of Progress Goes On!

Norm has responded to another one of my posts.

Norm’s first response to me was a bit of a fiasco (UPDATE: For me, I mean.). I had much unhatched chicken reproduction unit on my face after that one. This one, I think, leaves us both looking just fine – at least if you were disposed to think that before you read it. For the disagreement noted here is a poor, malnourished little thing indeed. Norm mentioned in the course of a post that the anti-war crowd ought to just move on. I responded, agreeing with most of the post, but adding a dissenting note or two. Norm has now pointed out that the dissenting notes have actually gotten a lot of play on his blog. And so they have. Duly noted.

Too much agreement is a bad thing, so let me protest the hook Norm uses as an excuse to get the post going. The hook is a letter in the Guardian:

Asked why she was protesting on Saturday… an anti-war demonstrator replied: “Because I have the right to tell the government that I don’t approve of what it did.” Fair enough, but the invasion gave the Iraqi people a similar right, which Saddam’s continued existence would have denied them. Apparently this hadn’t occurred to her. Extraordinary.

Now, you see that’s exactly the kind of silliness that had me throwing tantrums at Norm a few months back. Why oh why does the letter writer assume that this hadn’t occurred to her? What presumption – what galling presumption – to judge this from a simple remark about the protester’s entirely legitimate displeasure with the government! And why does Norm approve of this? Does he not detect an unpleasant echo of the Cold War superhawk’s refrain “Why do you hate freedom so?” which always carried with it the implication that to reject his methods was equivalent to hating freedom?

Good golly, it hath driven me mad!

Anyway, as a result of Norm’s post, I’ve just discovered another very interesting looking blog, Short Hope Unfiltered. Interesting, I say, but for that reason it’s all the more annoying that it lacks an RSS/Atom feed. Dude, it’s 2004 – where’s your frickin’ feed?

Finally, it seems to me that Norm is now doing warm-up exercises to prepare for the tougher stuff ahead. I don’t want to rush him – and I wouldn’t presume to dicatate the exact sequence in which he refutes me. For what it’s worth, though, it’s really this post that I’m dying to see an answer to.

UPDATE: Now that I’ve slept on it, it occurs to me that I may have misunderstood the letter Norm quotes. If the letter writer is responding to an original piece in the Guardian which I haven’t seen, it might be that there is enough context in the original piece to start throwing around blame. If so, then I suppose I would scale down my criticism a bit. Whatever the case, though, it’s annoying to be playing this game of look-how-stupid-a-random-person-who-disagrees-with-me-is. It’s one thing to point to prominent spokepeople on the left and scrutinize them for stupidity. It’s another to pick some person off the street and pretend that a great deal hangs on it either way. A lot of people protested for perfectly good reasons and a lot of people came down on both sides of the issue for wildly idiotic reasons. I think that really ought to be acknowledged.

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2004 03 22
[Kleiman on Iraq]

The ever-thoughtful Mark Kleiman writes:

Today’s New York Times reports that the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq has given heart to dissidents in Syria. That’s exactly the sort of thing the “neocon” architects of the Iraq invasion were hoping for. Like the end of the Iraqi tryranny, it has to be, on any reasonable accounting of the costs and benefits of going to war, an entry on teh credit side.

I wish that those who criticize the war were more willing than they seem to be to acknowledge its benefits, as I wish that those who still think it was a good idea were more willing to acknowledge both that the fear of a major Iraqi WMD program was central to the argument for war as it was actually made at the time and that it has proven in retrospect to have been seriously overestimated.

What the anti-war and pro-war sides have in common is an almost total unwillingness to acknowledge what seemed obvious to me: this was a hard problem, with no obvious right answer. No which side you were (or are) on, there are patriotic, humanitarian folks who know more than you do about the problem who disagree with you. If that were better understood, there might be a little less vitriol in the conversation.

Well, that sounds a bit like stuff I’ve said here at See Why. Still, I’d like to make a few qualifications to Kleiman’s point.

Set aside for the moment reservations about the NYT piece expressed by the equally thoughtful Abu Aardvaark. For it’s a rare policy that has no advantages whatsoever, and so I have no objection, in principle, to recognizing all kinds of benefits of the war. Grant, then, Kleiman’s point that people should be more willing to acknowledge the benefits of the war, even as you forgive those who drag their feet a bit because they (correctly) see that concessions about benefits are often twisted into drammatic rhetorical victories by their political opponents.

And yet, as much as I like what Kleiman is trying to do in this post, I’m looking for a little more nuance on this question of vitriol.

As far as the prudential case for the war goes, I think Kleiman is just wrong: It wasn’t a hard problem, and there was an obvious right answer. I think smart, well-meaning people were suckered into thinking that it was a bright idea, but that’s because I think that smart, well-meaning people can be suckered into all sorts of stupid ideas. Study enough intellectual history, and you’ll start to think that that’s the rule, rather than the exception. It’s now commonplace to point out how the war on Iraq diverted resources from other worries like instability in Pakistan, rebuilding Afghanistan, fighting AQ, and so on. But during the buildup to the war, I watched in astonishment as one highly intelligent person after another focused on the question of Iraq with laser-like intensity and to the almost complete neglect of the broader foreign policy priorities that we could all agree on. It was stupid. Forgivable, but stupid. But recognizing this is also compatible with respecting people’s intellectual and moral capabilities.

We don’t have to choose between seeing the question as difficult and seeing it as a cause for vitriol – even if the questions we’re debating are life and death issues.

As far as the humanitarian case for war goes, I think it was a very difficult call. And although I think the humanitarian case was premised on a number of naive assumptions, I think anyone who has read much about Saddam Hussein’s regime will be familiar with the deep longing which comes over one as page after page of atrocity goes by. (And anyone who has spoken with Iraqi exiles knows this feeling even better.) For many this longing was overpowering. And this I respect very much. No vitriol for these chaps. Impatience, exasperation, sharp questions, the odd rhetorical jab – we’re only human, after all – but no vitriol.

But before you swear off the vitriol altogether, consider that there were many people who supported the war for reasons that were both stupid and immoral, and for whom the humanitarian argument was a cynical and insincere cover. There were reasons and there were reasons, some of which we should respect, and some of which we should be in the business of shaming as vitriolically as we can. Kleiman is absolutely right that we ought to be careful not to impugn the integrity of people simply because we find them on the other side of this difficult issue. You’re relying on a very odd intellectual taxonomy if you just lump Rumsfeld in together with Norm Geras. They don’t fit together at all, even if they found themselves on the same side of the issue. But some people on the other side of the question, like Rumsfeld, are just plain asking for it.

Now, there are more controversial cases. Kenneth Pollack, for example, was highly regarded for his extremely careful and influential book on Iraq. But as a public intellectual with a high degree of influence, I think he had correspondingly high responsibilities. He failed, in my opinion, and miserably at that. His book is in fact a deeply dishonest work, as I would have documented by now if I weren’t such a lazy bastard. I don’t think he should be readmited to polite society, not at least until he does a more honest penance than one slick, ass-covering article in the Atlantic Monthly. From me Pollack gets nuttin’ but scorn.

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2004 03 21
[Powell on reform]

Here’s an interesting piece in the NYT. Powell is apparently traveling through the Middle East promoting democratic reform. The first paragraph is worrying:

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sought this weekend to allay the furor in the Middle East over the Bush administration’s proposed democracy initiative for the region, assuring the leaders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that there was no intention to impose reforms on their countries.

But the key word here is “impose”. Powell is pushing the line that reform has to come from within, and has to draw on the resources of the local culture.

But when he was asked in Saudi Arabia whether the United States would be satisfied if the Arab League adopted a democracy resolution, Mr. Powell bristled.

“It’s not a matter of satisfying the United States,” he said. “It’s a matter of satisfying the aspirations of the people in the Arab world.”

That’s not a terrible line to take, but rhetorically and substantively.

But notice the careful deference to the region’s rulers reported in the piece. It stands in quite jarring contrast to much of the admin’s tough talk. Once again, the problem with the Bush admin is not that it’s arrogant and pushy – it’s that it’s arrogant and pushy and cowardly and appeasing in turns, and always at the wrong times with the wrong people. Compare, for example, this diplomatic line with the (wholly counterproductive) warnings and admonitions for the people of Spain that we heard from senior administration officials recently.

Powell has a difficult task here. There really is a risk of backlash if he pushes very hard, very fast. But against this are two considerations which suggest he ought to be pushing a lot harder and a lot more publicly than he is. First, there’s the fact that the U.S. is strongly associated with the undemocratic autocrats in the region. Never push governments in the public eye, and you never really get a chance to challenge that perception. The second is that so long as this is just words, it doesn’t count for shit. To take one example, Powell needs to make clear that further assistance to Egypt is out of the question barring a long list of democratic reforms. Until he does that and other things in that spirit, the U.S. is simply enabling authoritarians in the region and then tisk-tisking them about it. Everyone knows this, so this sort of talk only adds to the cynicism about the U.S. in the region (and elsehwere) if it isn’t followed up in any way.

Let me conclude with one observation: At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kuwaiti women were still not allowed to vote. In fact, torture is quite routine in Kuwaiti prisons, and there are a whole host of other human rights concerns about the place. And this was 12 years after the country had been restored by the U.S. The U.S. had a dozen years to push for reforms in a tiny country which was completely dependant on it for security and which owed it an extraordinary debt.

Kuwait is much better now than it would have been under Saddam Hussein. But it is very much worse than it would be if the U.S. had cared one whit for reform in the country. So if the U.S. couldn’t – or wouldn’t – induce very much change at all in that case, why oh why would anyone believe that it could – or would – induce it in Iraq in almost incomparably more difficult circumstances?

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2004 03 20
[Sick dog]

The dog is sick. For some reason this invariably happens when my wife is away. I swear it’s not a quality of care issue. I think he’s just a moma’s boy.

So, hardly any sleep last night. And I just spent a lot of time cleaning up vomit in several hard-to-reach places around the apartment.

After the dog and I went for a refreshing 3am spin, he kept me awake by wimpering and climbing on top of me repeatedly. Not sure if I ever really got back to sleep.

Deep thought at 4am while listening to a car alarm sound off for the second time in 10 minutes: Given that the car is almost certainly not worth stealing, that no one looks when they hear a cheap car alarm go off, and that it is 4am – perhaps this ought to count as a capital offence. A worthy exception to my general position against capital punishment, no?

Unfortunately, all this sets me behind in my blogging. Will I catch up? You betcha! It’ll be just like in Chariots of Fire when the guy slips in the mud (for me: vomit) and then gets up and wins the race!


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2004 03 19
[Saddam’s torture chambers]

From Back in Iraq:

“Who would prefer that Saddam’s torture chambers still be open?” Bush asked. “Who would wish that more mass graves were still being filled? Who would begrudge the Iraqi people their long-awaited liberation?”

Well, no one is. What’s being begrudged is the way Bush screwed up the march to war in the United Nations, the lack of post-war planning and the sheer arrogance the White House has shown to anyone who disagrees with them. When John Kerry said more foreign leaders supported his candidacy, it was a gaffe not because it isn’t true, but because it is.

So good on ya, Mr. President, that Saddam is gone. And I sincerely mean that. I was in Iraq in July 2002 and saw the front between the Kurds and the Iraqi troops. I talked with survivors of the Halabja massacre. I met with families who had fled Kirkuk when Saddam “Arabized” them out of their homes. I was there during the war, and saw how happy many Iraqis – Kurds and Arabs alike – were that Saddam was gone.

But things are not going well now, and that’s mostly your fault, Mr. President. I didn’t oppose the war in Iraq because I’m a pacifist – I wholeheartedly supported Afghanistan. And I didn’t oppose it because I’m a supporter of tyrants. I opposed it because it was poorly planned from the get-go, cynically sold to the American people, alienating to American allies and a distraction from the real enemy – al Qaeda and its constellation of terror groups. You have yet to convince me that toppling Saddam was worth the deaths of 676 coalition troops and thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians despite the immediate benefits of the war. A year later, I’m not alone in still wrestling with this conundrum, and your simple black and white, “no neutral ground” statements don’t make the issue any clearer.

Now compare this to this snippet of an interview with Hitchens that I just found on Normblog:

Whitney: So you would consider then supporting the war in Iraq a properly leftist position?

Hitchens: Yes, I think it’s the only one. The leftist position is that co-existence with totalitarian dictatorship is undesirable and impossible. That’s the [principal] position. That is, or should be the left position. It used to be.

Got that? It’s not just the correct position, or the position that he arrived at after carefully weighing the terrible consequences on either side. It’s the only position.

I’m pretty damn sure I’m right about the war, but at least I can see why a well-meaning person would support it. Hitchens apparently can’t. I think this explains a lot about his writing: He gets some great rips off, but the underlying argument is almost always extremely weak. That must have something to do with the fact that he doesn’t seem able to think through the kinds of considerations that might move (the smarter and more decent among) his political opponents.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 03 19
[Krauthammer on the war on terror]

Charles Krauthammer tells us how to win the war on terror:

How is it won apart from hunting down terrorists and destroying terrorist regimes? By reversing the Arab-Islamic world’s tragic collapse into oppression, intolerance and destitution, in which popular grievances are cynically deflected by repressive regimes and clergy into the virulent anti-Americanism that exploded upon us on Sept. 11, 2001. Which means trying to give desperate and oppressed people a chance at the kind of freedom and prosperity that we helped construct after World War II in Europe and East Asia.

Yes, there’s more to it than that, of course, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this claim, which I like to call “the Chomsky-Wolfowitz theory of root causes,” is really on the right track. The problem is that the Bush administration is stuffed to the brim with cowardly appeasers who refuse to stand up to authoritarian governments like Egypt’s and Uzbekistan’s because these governments offer some short-term strategic advantages.

What follows is the same old sad dynamic drearily familiar from the Cold War: U.S. policymakers tell the public that now isn’t the right time to push crucial allies on human rights since they have bigger fish to fry. The authoritarian governments know perfectly well what they can get away with so long as they offer nominal support to the fish-frying effort. And everyone in the whole bleedin’ world comes to associate the U.S. with the authoritarian governments, including anti-government radicals. Much pain and long-term instability ensues.

I honestly wish that Bush were a little less diplomatic and nuanced here, that he was a little more unilateral in insisting on human rights, that he was a bit less cautious and fearful about offending allies.

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2004 03 19
[Dialogue on the war]

I had another argument with a friend about the march tomorrow (“We Still Oppose the War”). My first take on the march is here. What follows is a rather idealized version of the argument.

Her: I can’t believe you’re not going to the march. What the hell is the matter with you?

Me: It’s a terrible idea. Before the war I was able to rally behind a fairly straightforward slogan opposing it, despite all my differences and reservations about many of the standard reasons given for rejecting it by my fellow marchers. But now, now – even though it was a mistake, and I want Bush and his gang punished for it, I do badly want the project to succeed. It’s partly just a question of where I want my energy to go. It’s not too late to punish the pepole who led the U.S. into war, but it is too late to actually oppose it. Now I want to turn to finding solutions for the mess that the U.S. is in, and I desperately want to avoid advocating any position that would make things worse by prematurely drawing troops down. I admit, the U.S. has done little to justify any confidence here, but I still think things would be much, much worse if they just up and left. And the organizers of the protest are calling for exactly that.

Her: Yeah, I don’t want them to just up and leave either. Fine, but you don’t have to agree with everything that they say. You’re marching to express your anger at how badly things have gone and at how dishonest the Bush administration has been. If you were willing to march to show your anger before the war, and you haven’t changed your mind, then why not march now?

Me: You know what, the bit about calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops is just so irresponsible that I refuse to have anything to do with them.

Her: You’re not listening. I agree with you here. It’s not as if they’re just going to pull out and leave because we’re saying that. You agree with the basic point that the war was wrong. That should be enough. What are you going to do, hold your separate “nuance rally”? Make your own sign with your own message if you feel that strongly.

Me: What will it say? “Don’t withdraw the troops”? Anyway, saying that the Bush administration isn’t in any danger of taking the advice of protesters is wrong in two ways. First, the pace of withdrawal is really too fast. They’re already doing it, and at an irresponsible pace. Second, this bullshit about “Don’t worry they won’t take us seriously” is exactly the sort of nonsense that discredits the opponents of the Bush administration. The only way we can succeed is by formulating credible alternatives and trying to win people over to them. So I’m not going to console myself with the thought that no one really wants to draw down troops.

Her: Well, if you’re in favour of strategic voting, why do you reject strategic marching? Look, you said yourself in a recent post that you think people should vote democrat even if the democrats are a bunch of corrupt weasels. And you’ve voted in the past for political parties you weren’t happy with because you thought that on balance they were the best possible alternative. And you’re like most people in that respect. So why does everyone treat marches so differently? Why do reservations count so much more when it comes to marching? How can you justify that?

Me: I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I was really upset for the reasons I mentioned. I guess you have a good point about “strategic marching”. But I suppose this effort seems to me badly focused. I’m also sceptical about it because I think that by framing it in the way they have the organizers have made it especially easy to misrepresent. But your point is a good one – perhaps I was a bit too harsh, at least towards the people who decide that on balance they do want to march.

Her: Also, think about this: You’ve said that it’s now too late to get the UN and Europe really involved. You’re right in the sense that most European countries are extremely reluctant to do anything now that would help out Bush. They’re quite aware that Bush pinned his reputation on the invasion, and they’re not willing to lift a finger to do anything that might help him get reelected. But are you so sure that it’s too late? That it’s absolutely impossible?

Me: Yes, why not? It’s just too politically difficult at this point for the leaders of these countries to send troops off to fight and die in a war that their own citizens opposed so deeply.

Her: But what if Bush really backed down? What if he admitted serious errors of judgment? What if he did that in a way that made it politically much easier for the U.S.’s allies to support the U.S. in Iraq? Here’s my basic question: Are you saying it’s politically impossible – or that it’s politically highly unlikely, given how proud Bush is, and how climbing down in this way would doom him politically?

Me: I admit, I suppose I was thinking the latter was the case. Bush really would have to back down in such a way that sealed his fate politically. And I was assuming that he wouldn’t do that.

Her: Then you’ve rather misrepresented the case against future U.N. and European involvement here. That’s because you’ve just accepted without questioning it the assumption that Bush isn’t going to back down in ways that would produce a better outcome for the country but a worse outcome for himself and his party – in other words, that it’s just out of the question for Bush to act like a real leader willing to do what is best overall. Don’t you see how much you’ve conceded to Bush by framing the issue in this way?

Me: Woah! Look at the time. Don’t you have to go now? Hey, is it hot in here?

Welcome to See Why, the home of self-doubt and internal contradiction.

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2004 03 18
He said, He said

Certain things are true. But wacky journalistic conventions often prevent reporters from just coming out and saying them. This piece in the times is a great example of that. The piece contrasts two speeches, one by Kerry and one by Cheney. The piece makes some kind of attempt at balance, but ends up falling flat on its face. Thus, after reporting a series of outrageous lies from Cheney, more than half-way through the piece, the reporter finally gets around to telling us what’s wrong with them:

After Mr. Cheney’s speech, the Kerry campaign issued a rebuttal, calling Mr. Cheney “the wrong man to challenge John Kerry on defense.” Aides to Mr. Kerry found quotations that showed Mr. Cheney expressing varying views over the years, including advocating cutting some of the same weapons systems that Mr. Cheney was faulting Mr. Kerry for wanting to cut.

Moreover, the Kerry aides said, the Bush administration did send troops to Iraq without proper equipment. And they noted that the Pentagon in the summer of 2003 sought to hold down growth in pay and benefits, saying the budget could not sustain higher salaries for the military.

OK, so Kerry aides said this. Is it true? If it’s true and independently verifiable (it is both), then why did the reporters let this go until the story was more than halfway gone? Why do the reporters distance themselves from the facts by reporting them as if they are merely one side of a dispute in which – who knows? – either side might turn out to be correct?

A real reporter like Dana Milbank of the WaPo would have handled this differently. After each one of Cheney’s lies, he would have reported the facts as we know them. And he wouldn’t have hidden behind the “he said, he said” format, as the authors of the Times piece did.

(I haven’t gone trolling through the blogosphere yet today. But I imagine a lot of people are saying the same thing. My apologies for what is almost certainly not an original post.)

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2004 03 16
[Powell on Halabja]

Here is the text of Colin Powell’s remarks on the 16th Anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s attack on Halabja, released the other day by the State Department:

SECRETARY POWELL Sixteen years ago, Saddam Hussein massacred the innocent people of Halabja as part of his systemic campaign of pillage and murder against the people of northern Iraq. In just a few short hours, more than 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children were slaughtered with poison gas. Afterwards, they lay where they fell, babies still folded in the loving arms of their mothers. As President Bush said of the Halabja massacre, “If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”

What happened in Halabja was but a particularly gruesome case of the crimes of Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people. Those crimes were perpetrated against Arabs and Turkomen as well as Kurds, Christians as well as Muslims, Sunni as well as Shi’a. As we remember the victims of Halabja, let us not forget the uncounted thousands of innocent citizens who died by the brutal hand of this terrible dictator. On this day of remembrance, the American people send their deepest condolences to the people of Halabja, and to all Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s repression.

For 15 years we have stood witness on this day to the victims of Halabja, that their deaths not be forgotten. But this year is different. This year the dreams of the Iraqi people to be free from the terror of the Saddam Hussein regime have come true. This year our bereavement has finally been lightened. This year a new light shines on Iraq, a light of freedom, a light of hope, and a light of justice.

The people of Halabja have built a memorial to the victims of Saddam Hussein’s evil, a moving testament to those who died. I visited that memorial last September and met with some of the families who had lost loved ones during those terrible times. I resolved then, as we are all resolved now, that the building of Iraq must continue. Iraqis will redeem the loss of those who have gone down to the grave, at Halabja and elsewhere. They’ll do it by building a free and prosperous nation, a nation whose government respects the human rights of all its people.

The United States is proud to have helped make such an Iraq possible. And now the people of the United States stand ready to assist the people of Iraq as they take their rightful place among the community of nations. We pray that this springtime will bring the sweetness of consolation to those who mourn, and that justice and peace be the inheritance of every Iraqi family.

The massacre at Halabja calls out for commemoration, but this statement is an object lesson in how not to commemorate a tragedy. The worst line, I think, is the bit about 15 years of standing witness. Everyone in the region knows that the U.S. did everything it could to block condemnation of the massacre in the U.N., to erase it from memory because it was inconvenient at the time. And when everyone knows this, it’s far less offensive to say nothing than to lie to their faces.

You might say, “Ah well, stop focusing on the U.S. The point here is Halabja, which you concede is an appropriate event to commemorate.” But the problem with that is that the statement weaves U.S. self-congratulation into the commemoration at every opportunity. It’s not me to who dragged U.S. misdeeds into this. It’s Colin Powell who had the very poor taste to try to score points off it, and by doing so silently raised the whole issue anew.

And you might say, “Ah well, just let it go. It’s past now, and the complicity was indirect, the responsibility secondary.” But there is a very good reason that people just can’t let these things go. We want a break from the past. We want to believe that things will be different from now on. But many of the same people are still calling the shots, and they’ve never accepted responsibility. This refusal to accept responsibility is more than a frustrating evasion – it’s alarming. Without an frank and open discussion of these and other failures, we’re doomed to go on like this, adding fresh failures as we go.

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2004 03 16
The Withdrawal Method

Not the most original headline, but I couldn’t resist . . . Via Keywords, I discovered that the anti-war protests I mentioned earlier are much worse than I originally thought. As far as I can tell, the protesters actually plan on calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

I marched against the war. I continue to think it was a terrible mistake. I don’t want the U.S. to have its grubby little paws on Iraq for the long term. But do these protesters have any idea what they’re calling for? Do they have any idea what the consequences would be if anyone took them seriously?

Look, I want U.S. troops home soon too. And I know that it’s easy for me to write this, since I’m not the one who has to get shot at all day in the blazing heat. But if U.S. troops stay a bit longer, they might – they just might – be able to avert a civil war. They just might be able to help Iraq muddle through long enough for things to gell together – and then Iraqis just might have a long shot at something better than the hell they’ve had to endure these long years. But if the U.S. pulled out now, that slender chance would vanish, and there would be nothing but killing and despair.

Yesterday, after reading the Keywords post, which I recommend, I wrote to a colleague of mine who plans to attend the march. I hope it’s ok for me to reprint his reply, in part:

Well, ‘bring the troops home in 90 days’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Of course we couldn’t pack up and pull out in a couple of days, but this isn’t what anyone (sane) is asking for. Many sane people are suggesting that we look past the false dichotomy of keeping things as they are now or pulling out in a couple of days giving no thought to the security of Iraq. An international *peacekeeping* force could be assembled fairly quickly *if* we turned over control of *everything* to the UN. Once such a force was on hand, we could pull out. As long as we’re there and doing our modern day Arab facade thing, Iraq will be unstable. The sooner we get out and let the political chips fall where they may, the better chance the country will have to stabilize and the sooner it will start. US presence in Iraq at this point is purely antagonistic, regardless of the level of sincerity had by anyone who is on the IGC or part of the CPA or Bush administration as regards the long-term well-being of Iraq. (Not that I think any of them are sincere on this score.)

When I first read this, I thought “let the political chips fall where they may” was one of the most heartless things I had ever read. But then I realized that my colleague is of course assuming that the UN would be there to prevent a civil war. The problem is that it’s too damn late for the UN. The US has screwed that all up. It’s too late, and very few countries are willing to risk the lives of their citizens to help the US. So it’s very naive to depend on this in defending the slogan.

I’m not sure what the “dichotomy of keeping things as they are now or pulling out in a couple of days giving no thought to the security of Iraq” is supposed to be. Things are actually moving very swiftly now towards a transitional power, more swiftly than I’m comfortable with.

At any rate, it seems to me that my colleague might concede the substance of my point if he saw how hopeless it would be at this point to rely on the U.N. But then his case would rest entirely on the political merits of the slogan “Bring the troops home”. Here, he’s even more mistaken. If he’s already lost a well-meaning lefty like myself, how well does he think this slogan is going to play with regular folks? If the literal meaning of the slogan is bad, I think it’s easily twisted into a hundred worse shapes. So it hasn’t even got popular appeal going for it.

I’ve been trying to think of the best case one could make for my colleague’s view of the situation. And the best I can do is this:

“Come on, take a hard look at yourself and what you’re saying. You may have a genuine humanitarian concern for the people of Iraq, but you’ve unwittingly become an apologist for imperial power. You know what you remind me of? You remind me of some stuffy Brit from a hundred years past fretting about what might happen if the wonderful civilizing and benevolent influence of the British were suddenly withdrawn from the savages and they were left to their own devices. Our stuffy Brit would have likewise been driven by a sort of humanitarian concern – but he would have thereby entirely missed the big picture, which is that on the whole Britain’s paternalistic rationale for involvment masked naked imperial ambition which had nothing to do with anyone’s good and did a whole lot of mischief as a result. Unjustifiable then, and you know it, and so unjustifiable now.”

And since I’m writing for both sides, let me point out that the analogy cuts both ways. I do condemn empire. I do see how it was unjustifiable – and also how humanitarian concerns were used to support it nontheless for the duration. But consider the case of India. The British had no business there, regardless of the good they may have thought they were doing. But when they left, after years of procrastinating, their depature occurred with criminal haste and carelessness. And what we got was possibly avoidable: partition and two, then three, mutually antagonistic countries, and eventually the very serious risk of nuclear war. An extra 6-12 months and a great deal more care was justified even though the imperial enterprise in which the British rule of India was enmeshed was an utter fraud.

Once you’re in, you stand to do a great deal of damage depending on how you leave. That is another lesson of empire, beyond the one urging cyncism about motives which everyone seems to have absorbed from recent events.

Questions about self-determination are as slippery and morally difficult as most questions about power. No one should think that they’re doing Iraqis any favours by letting them just work things out as soon as possible. I tried to argue for this, and explain why my attitude doesn’t simply collapse into objectionable paternalism here.

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2004 03 16

David Brooks is trying to be sympathetic to the cowardly Spanish. He doesn’t want to think them despicable:

I’m resisting that conclusion, because I don’t know what mix of issues swung the Spanish election during those final days. But I do know that reversing course in the wake of a terrorist attack is inexcusable. I don’t care what the policy is. You do not give terrorists the chance to think that their methods work. You do not give them the chance to celebrate victories. When you do that, you make the world a more dangerous place, for others and probably for yourself.

So, like, even though Brooks doesn’t know why Spain voted as it did, he still knows exactly what it means? Most of the evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that people were furious about being lied to in the aftermath of a tragedy by people who hoped to make a political gain from it. Shouldn’t Brooks consult an opinion poll before he draws this conclusion? No, here’s what Brooks feels entitled to conclude: “Al Qaeda has now induced one nation to abandon the Iraqi people.” Or perhaps AQ has now created the conditions for one stupid government to completely blow its credibility immediately before an election.

While we’re on the subject of not giving terrorists what they want, I’d like to point out that every time Hamas commits an atrocity against Israelis, the Israeli government breaks off talks with the P.A. Now I know that there are very thorny questions about complicity of both the active and the passive kind between the PA and other terrorists groups. Still, it’s absolutely obvious that the suicide bombings are aimed at breaking down the talks. They’re aimed at provoking collective punishment to further radicalize the Palestinians. That’s the point. And it always works. In other words, in this case the terrorists are repeatedly given the chance to think that their methods work. I’ve yet to see a conservative commentator point that out. Don’t give them what they want, my ass.

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2004 03 16
[Powell on the war]

On the weekend I noticed that Colin Powell said that the war remained justified because Iraq posed a long term threat to the region whether or not it actually had WMD. I meant to blog about this but didn’t have a chance until now.

The interesting thing is that Powell is actually right. Of course Saddam Hussein would have resumed his WMD programs had the sanctions lifted and his country been awash in oil revenues again. (Or perhaps not if he concluded that WMD were not much use against his main adversaries. Nevertheless, no responsible forecast would have been based on such an optimistic assumption.)

The trick is that Powell’s conclusion doesn’t follow from his premises. And this is because – for the hundredth time – the prudential case for the war collapses as soon as you see that the question was not how dangerous Iraq was, but rather how dangerous Iraq was compared to the other threats the U.S. had to deal with. A proper prudential argument had to place Iraq within the broader context of what was going on in the world – and it had to answer hard questions about the allocation of resources, since more resources thrown at one aspect of a problem often mean less devoted to another. (I don’t mean to imply that we’re always playing a zero sum game here. Still, there are very real limits on resources, as we’re now discovering.)

Now, here’s why I bring this up, even though I’ve said all this before. Over the last year and a half, I’ve taught a class on the war, discussed it for countless hours, and read literally thousands and thousands of articles about it. And not once – not once – have I ever seen anyone supporting the war face this elementary point squarely, yet alone give a convincing answer.

Not once.

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